Brian Morton examines the history of composition by computer. This article was originally published in The Wire 96 (February 1992).
Machines can't laugh, but will they sing? Back in the Dream Time of any culture there is a persistent fantasy about things that make music - singing rocks, "sea organs" that pipe sound out of fissures, naturally interwoven branches that groan their 'cool' harmonics as the evening sun moves off them. Only a step from there to artefacts that make their 'music' - is it? - without further intervention.
The Aeolian harp is only a distant Mediterranean ancestor of 'environmentally interactive' works of the 60s and after, pieces like Detlef and Tauschi Kronberger's !, which combined environmental change (like rain or wind) with photo-electric cells and pressure pads, to create a musical ambience that couldn't be controlled because the parameters were always too changeable. Step back into that corner of the room, where the baby gurgled, and the pad triggers something different. The wind changes and the harp falls silent, or produces anew, warning hum. Terry Riley drew his inspiration for a music of equal temperament from the image of a harp left on a headland, subject to the movements of time itself.
The 'technology' goes back even further. There are rain drums, tuned to patter out a quiet accompaniment to the redemption of the desert. There are wind chimes. There's even the bushman who traps bees in a gourd and drifts off to sleep to a minimalist New Age hum, confident too that their stinging anger has been contained. And isn't all music about either containment or release?
That's certainly true of the longest-standing music machine, the bird-in-cage. If a Weather Report sleeve is to be believed, a bird doesn't fly because it has wings; it has wings because it can fly. If so a bird in a cage isn't a bird any more. Blind it with a hot wire to make it sing better, and it becomes a thing. Harrison Birtwistle's Mad King has a rack of tuned finches to accompany his wandering.
The technology begins to assert itself and establish its own 'event horizon' with the arrival of mechanical clock-bells, musical boxes, fairground calliopes, perfect, controllable events that nonetheless appeal to a certain distant animism in our make-up. There was a soldier in the King's Guard at Windsor in the 1930s who tried to prove he hadn't nodded on duty by claiming that Big Tom had struck thirteen. They banged him off to jankers and had him talk to the chaplain. And then the bell did it again, for no discernible mechanical reason, just for the sheer hell of hearing its own voice one more time. It's the most dangerous fantasy of all, that things might try not to communicate, but to express itself. Do we dare to believe that the Tin Men really want hearts?
As we've got further down the road, both towards the generational leap that might let a machine make up its own mind about something, we've also got further from the animistic self-confidence that lets us share the world with things that might tap our quintessence. It's somehow OK to have a computer or a robot run amok, but the thought that one might sit down and write a piece of music (more dangerous even than randomizing colours or words into 'accidental' realism or metaphor) is utterly, unutterably unacceptable.
And so, we've got to the stage where we preen our tattered and outmoded humanism with the idea that it's all down to us anyway, computers-don't-make-errors-people-do, GIGO ("garbage in, garbage out"), you-can-always-pull-the-plug, and so on. The machine demands an interface.
The history of music and machines has always been started too late. The first score to be written through the offices of a digital computer was LeJaren Hiller's and Leonard M. Isaacson's 1956 string quartet Illiac Suite. Serialists soon found that they could save quite a lot of "paper time", hell, quite a lot of paper, by getting the idiot savant box to rattle through the permutations and inversions in a tenth of the time, with the comforting thought that they know not what they do and you-can-always-pull-the-plug.
Xenakis used computers with a refreshing pragmatism to save the labour of working out every last detail of those huge stochastic masses, and no-one considers that music bogus any more than one might dismiss a Piero della Francesca because some unknown apprentice 'did the sky bits' or coloured in an edge of curtain.
In the wake of Hiller's and Isaacson's beautifully documented experiment, there was increasing activity in digital sound synthesis. Max Mathews, with the blessing of Bell Telephone, devised complex arrays of "compilers" that allowed all the quantifiable parameters of a "musical event", as he described it, to be determined by machine. A decade later, he was operating with the optimistically-titled GROOVE (Generation of Real-Time Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment) which gradually gave way to digital synths, and lead by an inexorable progress of intellectual machination and raw cash to IRCAM and the much-vaunted polyphonic 4X.
That skimps quite a lot of the history and much of the arithmetic, because at the same time there was a countervailing resistance to the idea of technology as a primarily analytical and synthetic tool. Cage, with or without a dose of Zen, perceived that there was a music in and of the environment which had to be understood before we risked the hubris of making our own. Cage has had remarkably little truck with computers. He has been content to explore the external and inner space we occupy for the music that it yields.
And at the same time as Hiller and Isaacson were making their experiments, Percy Grainger was working on his remarkably Heath Robinson "free music machine", which followed a dark-field ink trace to produce great swooping glissandi, not dissimilar to Xenakis's, and concentrations of completely inaccessible to a human performer. Down in Mexico, the now vastly over-rated Conlon Nancarrow was punching out 'scores' of fanatical denseness for an Ampico player piano (and it's interesting that Kurt Vonnegut Jr's first full length science fiction tale took the player piano as the informing metaphor for a world whose alien inhumanity still depended on a piece of domestic kitsch).
What all of these men share, to adapt the words of Xenakis's mentor and collaborator Le Corbusier, is that music has become a machine to be inhabited. That is very different from the belief that we can be possessed by music. The mutuality of music within and without is the impossible harmony. As long as we are trapped with the weasely conception of instruments as things that stand between us – sometimes neutrally, sometimes obstructively – and the music, then we cannot realise that the instruments are the music.
This isn't nature mysticism, and has nothing to do with the 'natural' resonance of gut and wood, brass or ebony, but with a basic metaphysical misconception at the heart of technologised music-making. We've never been closer to or further from understanding it.
The problem with GROOVE is that it didn't. Computer music, all
mediated music, is painfully cumbersome, even when it seems most
graceful. Our obsession with silence and music's aspiration to
silence is explained by our persistent belief that music is etched
on silence the way a circuit is etched on a board. There is very
little interactive freedom in the direction musical technology has
taken us. Watching and hearing George Lewis in "conversation" with
a computer, as attentive to its gestures (and as politely blind to
its limitations) as it is responsive to his trombone, is one of the
significant experiences in contemporary music, for it allows the possibility that technology allows us to be responsive to the made environment as we might be to other improvisers or to the weather or to a particular configuration of alpha waves (though we wouldn't know about that).
The dream has faded into a programme of research. But it really isn't over till the Tin Man swells his skinny ribs and sings.